A History of the Urals

A History of the Urals: Russia’s Crucible from Early Empire to the Post-Soviet Era
Paul Dukes
Bloomsbury Academic  272pp  £19.99

The Ural mountains stretch for 2,500km from the Arctic ocean to the edges of the central Asian steppe and form the traditional border between Europe and Asia. The range never exceeds 2,000m in height and travellers on the Trans-Siberian railway that traverses the mountains reach an elevation of just 401m. Yet, as Paul Dukes shows, these modest mountains have played a central role in the history of Russia. Their significance lies in the extraordinary richness of the natural resources buried beneath them: in the 1820s, gold and platinum were discovered in Perm province, so that by the middle of the 19th century Russia was the only country in the world to use platinum in its coinage. High quality iron ore had been mined in the Urals since the end of the 17th century, while copper was also found there and for the next century the Urals were the source of Russia’s entire output of copper and more than three quarters of its iron. Ukraine overtook the Urals as the centre of Russia’s heavy industry during the 19th century, but part of Stalin’s industrial revolution at the end of the 1920s included revitalising the Urals. The city of Magnitogorsk – Magnetic Mountain – situated next to an outcrop of pure iron grew from almost nothing to a population of some 250,000 by 1932 and its metallurgical complex developed to produce 3.7m tons of iron and steel in 1936. Smelting works, pulp and paper and heavy machine industry plants were also established in the Urals, turning the region under Stalin into the Soviet Union’s most significant industrial area, with metal and chemical industries dominating the scene. During the 1930s oil and gas reserves were discovered in the Urals; the Khanty-Mansi district in the northern Urals now accounts for more than half of Russia’s output of oil. 

Paul Dukes’ book places the economic development of the Urals into the overall context of the political and social development of Russia and the Soviet Union with great effectiveness. He shows how, despite the revolutionary changes that have led from the Tsarist monarchy to the Soviet state and now to an authoritarian Russian regime under Putin, the Russian economy has never been able to develop a strong manufactured goods sector. Dmitrii Medvedev, who exchanged the presidency for the prime ministership with Putin, has bemoaned the Russian model of relying on the export of raw materials for economic success. He suggested that the two great attempts, by Peter the Great and Stalin, to introduce an innovative economic system in Russia each resulted in a very high human price, as people were forced to comply with the priorities of the state. The Urals have been Russia’s crucible, but they have also been the scene of great cruelty and oppression. Nicholas II and his family were executed in Ekaterinburg in 1918, while convict labour from the Gulag played a crucial role in the Stalinist industrial revolution of the 1930s. Paul Dukes’ perceptive book shows how the Urals exemplify the problems that Russia continues to face: can it achieve sustained economic prosperity without retreating back towards authoritarian rule?

Peter Waldron is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia. His books include Governing Tsarist Russia (Palgrave Macmillan) and Russia of the Tsars (Thames & Hudson).

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